HELSINKI – A fire in a building housing a hostel that authorities said was operating illegally killed eight people in the center of Latvia's capital early Wednesday, officials said.
The Latvian State Fire and Rescue Service said it was alerted about the fire on Merkela Street in the heart of Riga at about 5 a.m. When firefighters arrived, the building’s sixth floor and roof were on fire, and rescuers found eight people dead.
They evacuated another 24 people, the Baltic News Service reported. At least nine people were injured, including six who were hospitalized for burns and smoke inhalation.
Latvian state TV broadcast footage of flames pouring out of the top of the building while two firefighters aimed at hose at the blaze from a ladder.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or where the fire started. Latvian authorities and Riga Mayor Martins Stakis said the state-owned building housed an illegal hostel where the operators recently had carried out unauthorized renovation work.
Latvian authorities said the hostel was technically a private apartment and lacked the necessary fire safety and other permits required to operate as a multiple-person lodging.
Several of the victims likely were foreigners, Stakis told reporters. The mayor said on Twitter that information he received from police indicated the hostel was operating illegally and “the burned building was dominated by foreigners, most likely foreign students, who used the hostel’s services.”
Deputy Police Chief Andrejs Grisins told Latvian media outlets that some of the bodies were so badly burned that DNA tests would be needed to confirm the victims’ identities.
The building is located in the commercial center of Riga, a city with some 630,000 residents, and close to the main bus and railway stations. A local booking website listed the hostel as “Japanese Style Centrum Riga" and said it had 22 rooms.
According to Latvian public broadcaster LSM, the hostel had been on the radar of police and the State Fire and Rescue Service since March because of concerns about fire safety and the facility not complying with COVID-19 restrictions.
In March, the hostel was issued a 500-euro ($600) fine for not complying with orders by authorities, LSM reported.